Topical herbal therapies for treating osteoarthritis

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 May 31;2013(5):CD010538. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010538.


Background: Before extraction and synthetic chemistry were invented, musculoskeletal complaints were treated with preparations from medicinal plants. They were either administered orally or topically. In contrast to the oral medicinal plant products, topicals act in part as counterirritants or are toxic when given orally.

Objectives: To update the previous Cochrane review of herbal therapy for osteoarthritis from 2000 by evaluating the evidence on effectiveness for topical medicinal plant products.

Search methods: Databases for mainstream and complementary medicine were searched using terms to include all forms of arthritis combined with medicinal plant products. We searched electronic databases (Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, AMED, CINAHL, ISI Web of Science, World Health Organization Clinical Trials Registry Platform) to February 2013, unrestricted by language. We also searched the reference lists from retrieved trials.

Selection criteria: Randomised controlled trials of herbal interventions used topically, compared with inert (placebo) or active controls, in people with osteoarthritis were included.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently selected trials for inclusion, assessed the risk of bias of included studies and extracted data.

Main results: Seven studies (six different medicinal plant interventions; 785 participants) were included. Single studies (five studies) and non-comparable studies (two studies) precluded pooling of results.Moderate evidence from a single study of 174 people with hand osteoarthritis indicated that treatment with Arnica extract gel probably results in similar benefits as treatment with ibuprofen (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) with a similar number of adverse events. Mean pain in the ibuprofen group was 44.2 points on a 100 point scale; treatment with Arnica gel reduced the pain by 4 points after three weeks: mean difference (MD) -3.8 points (95% confidence intervals (CI) -10.1 to 2.5), absolute reduction 4% (10% reduction to 3% increase). Hand function was 7.5 points on a 30 point scale in the ibuprofen-treated group; treatment with Arnica gel reduced function by 0.4 points (MD -0.4, 95% CI -1.75 to 0.95), absolute improvement 1% (6% improvement to 3% decline)). Total adverse events were higher in the Arnica gel group (13% compared to 8% in the ibuprofen group): relative risk (RR) 1.65 (95% CI 0.72 to 3.76).Moderate quality evidence from a single trial of 99 people with knee osteoarthritis indicated that compared with placebo, Capsicum extract gel probably does not improve pain or knee function, and is commonly associated with treatment-related adverse events including skin irritation and a burning sensation. At four weeks follow-up, mean pain in the placebo group was 46 points on a 100 point scale; treatment with Capsicum extract reduced pain by 1 point (MD -1, 95% CI -6.8 to 4.8), absolute reduction of 1% (7% reduction to 5% increase). Mean knee function in the placebo group was 34.8 points on a 96 point scale at four weeks; treatment with Capsicum extract improved function by a mean of 2.6 points (MD -2.6, 95% CI -9.5 to 4.2), an absolute improvement of 3% (10% improvement to 4% decline). Adverse event rates were greater in the Capsicum extract group (80% compared with 20% in the placebo group, rate ratio 4.12, 95% CI 3.30 to 5.17). The number needed to treat to result in adverse events was 2 (95% CI 1 to 2).Moderate evidence from a single trial of 220 people with knee osteoarthritis suggested that comfrey extract gel probably improves pain without increasing adverse events. At three weeks, the mean pain in the placebo group was 83.5 points on a 100 point scale. Treatment with comfrey reduced pain by a mean of 41.5 points (MD -41.5, 95% CI -48 to -34), an absolute reduction of 42% (34% to 48% reduction). Function was not reported. Adverse events were similar: 6% (7/110) reported adverse events in the comfrey group compared with 14% (15/110) in the placebo group (RR 0.47, 95% CI 0.20 to 1.10).Although evidence from a single trial indicated that adhesive patches containing Chinese herbal mixtures FNZG and SJG may improve pain and function, the clinical applicability of these findings are uncertain because participants were only treated and followed up for seven days. We are also uncertain if other topical herbal products (Marhame-Mafasel compress, stinging nettle leaf) improve osteoarthritis symptoms due to the very low quality evidence from single trials.No serious side effects were reported.

Authors' conclusions: Although the mechanism of action of the topical medicinal plant products provides a rationale basis for their use in the treatment of osteoarthritis, the quality and quantity of current research studies of effectiveness are insufficient. Arnica gel probably improves symptoms as effectively as a gel containing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, but with no better (and possibly worse) adverse event profile. Comfrey extract gel probably improves pain, and Capsicum extract gel probably will not improve pain or function at the doses examined in this review. Further high quality, fully powered studies are required to confirm the trends of effectiveness identifed in studies so far.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Arnica
  • Capsaicin / therapeutic use
  • Comfrey / chemistry
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal / administration & dosage
  • Hand Joints
  • Humans
  • Osteoarthritis / drug therapy*
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee / drug therapy
  • Phytotherapy / methods*
  • Plant Extracts / administration & dosage*


  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal
  • Plant Extracts
  • Capsaicin